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IBM chips help see into space

200GHz chips for high-performance telescope

A high-performance radio telescope that will seek out deep space radio signals to help scientists learn more about the creation of the universe is under development by a Netherlands-based space foundation and IBM.

In a partnership announced last week, the Netherlands Foundation for Research in Astronomy (ASTRON) said it will get help from IBM on several facets of the radio telescope design, including the engineering and manufacturing of customised, high-performance analogue and mixed-signal processing chips that will eventually be used to capture weak radio signals from deep space.

The chips will be used in thousands of specialised antennas to be located in remote sites to create a large-scale prototype radio telescope, called SKADS/EMBRACE, for ASTRON. Eventually the technology will be used in a proposal for ASTRON's Square Kilometer Array (SKA), which when built could be the world's largest radio telescope, according to the group. It said the array will be used to learn more about a wide range of celestial objects in deep space, including gamma-ray bursts, planets outside of our solar system, evolving galaxies and dark matter. The SKA project will create a huge radio telescope made up of hundreds of small collection stations that will form a larger picture to aid researchers.

Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Radio astronomy uses radio telescopes to detect, or "see”, radio wave emissions from far-off objects in space. They differ from optical telescopes, which use lenses to literally see objects in deep space. Radio telescopes also differ from optical telescopes because clouds and other atmospheric conditions have no negative effects on their use. By using a large array of many special antennas for the proposed radio telescope projects, researchers will be able to gather the faintest radio signals ever collected from deep space, according to project organisers.

Raj Desai, vice president of aerospace and defence at IBM, said the ASTRON project will also involve IBM in analysing data from the200 radio signals that will eventually be collected by the radio telescopes as prototypes are built and tested.

The radio telescope designs sought by ASTRON differ from current designs, Desai said, because the new chips will allow the collection of much weaker radio signals than those collected today by scientists around the world.

"It's going to tell a better story" than possible now about the conditions in the universe when it was created some 13 billion years ago, Desai said. "It's the next step in research but it's a huge leap in the capabilities of what is being done today."

Scientists will also be able to use the next generation of radio telescopes to find out if new galaxies are forming where we can't see today, he said. "Those signals are an avenue to find out more," he said.

The antenna prototypes are due by next August, Desai said, with production pieces scheduled to be available by the end of 2007.

In building the specialized chips that will make up the antennas, IBM is creating high-performance, low-power-usage customised chips. The chips are based on IBM's Silicon Germanium technology, which combines analogue radio frequency circuits onto the chip, producing low noise and low power consumption, according to IBM. The chips will have a peak frequency of more than 200 GHz.


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